Re-inventing Chile

02 April, 2010

Amid the chaos following the earthquakes on February 27 there was some relief that damage to Chile’s wine infrastructure was limited. The loss of production is expected to be around 12.5% of total output. This represents a US$250 million blow to the industry, but Chile’s producers will be able to fulfil orders while getting on with repairing the damage. It is good to know that its recent meteoric pace of change should be back on track before too long.

It has a much longer history, but the quality Chilean wine industry we know today dates back only 30 years. While some of the earliest vineyards have gone on to produce Chile’s top wines, the truth is the country’s vineyards were planted by farmers and engineers with little knowledge of matching soil to grape, and no understanding of terroir.

A question of terroir?Large, easy to maintain rectangular blocks were laid out on the hot, fertile floor of the Central Valley, while the cooler and potentially much more interesting soils towards the Andes and the Pacific were not considered.

Perhaps because of this, Chilean wine developed a reputation as being good, reliable stuff at a decent price, but of failing to excite. On my first tour in 2002, new ground had been broken in regions to the north and towards the coast, but nobody mentioned them or their potential.

Fast forward to 2010 and there has been enormous change and truly exciting possibilities. Where once there was just Maipo, for example, the region now has multiple personalities with Coastal Maipo and Alto Maipo joining the party. There are vineyards just a few kilometres from the Pacific benefiting from its cooling currents, and into the foothills of the Andes with vineyards at 800m providing cool conditions and more interesting soils.

But there are also brand new wine valleys, no more than a decade old, that perhaps show the greatest potential.

Elqui is a fascinating valley many hundreds of kilometres north of the former vineyard limit, offering startlingly different vine-growing conditions (see box). Further south, Limarí and the newer Choapa Valley are already producing refined cool-climate Syrah and Pinot Noir – varieties that were barely part of Chile’s portfolio a few years ago. Producer Concha y Toro is heavily involved here, with its Maycas del Limarí brand.

Towards the coast, the Casablanca Valley was Chile’s first genuinely cooler- climate

wine region, thanks to its morning fogs, but new kid on the block Leyda Valley is Chile’s hottest cool property.

As Francisco Ponce, oenologist at Viña Garcés Silva, says: “Every winery in Chile wants to have a little piece of Leyda.” The draw is the position, squeezed between the coastal mountain range and the Pacific, with a variety of soils including marine fossils, quartz and gravel. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are already thrilling, but Syrah is making an impact too.

Heading south?Leyda carries a heavy burden, as people talk of it doing for Chilean fine wine what Marlborough did for New Zealand. After just a decade, it is certainly producing some of Chile’s most interesting wines.

Vineyards have recently been planted far south on the wet, cool and unlikely edge of Chile’s Lake District, but for now the commercial southern boundary has been drawn at the Bío Bío Valley. More than 500km south of Santiago, Bío Bío is Chile’s “new Burgundy”, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay showing enormous potential, as well as aromatic white wine grapes.

One company, VC Family Estates, dominates with a Burgundian winemaking team: Louis Vallet is winemaker and Pascal Marchand a consultant. These convincing wines have recently been taken on in the UK by Bibendum.

North, south, east and west, finding the name of these new valleys or sub-regions on the label of a Chilean wine is almost a guarantee of interesting drinking. Now that is a big, big change for Chile.

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